I'm back from Iceland! ...Which doesn't make a difference to most of you because I'm just someone who may or may not exist at the other end of the Internet tubes. But it matters to me because now my life goes back to being boring.
To kick off this series of posts about my trip (which was AWESOME, as you will soon see...if I can write fast enough), I'm going to start off with a list of somewhat simple things that would've been helpful to know before I went to Iceland (at least, Iceland during the third week of April; not all of this advice is applicable during other seasons). Admittedly, I didn't do much research; I "prepared" by organizing recommendations made by other people, checking to see what the weather would be like, and remembering the exchange rate. I also relied a lot on my travel buddies, Diana and Greg, for info. Greg's Lonely Planet guide helped a bit as well, especially when it came to getting a crash course in pronouncing Icelandic—not that you'd really need it because just about everyone speaks English.
In no particular order, here's my list of things I probably should've known beforehand and other tips I found along the way. Some of these things might be basic, but I'm kind of clueless. If I'm missing anything, let me know!
Hot water smells like sulfur. It's not a problem; I just didn't know until Diana told me. And then it became clear when I splashed warm water on my face at the hotel and I felt like I had spritzed myself with eau de rotten egg. The water smells because it's heated by geothermal energy; it's the scent of Earth's belly. I thought I should mention it so you're not surprised when you turn on the faucet and it smells...funny. (Cold water is fine though, so feel free to drink it. Just run the faucet on cold for a while if it was just hot or else it may have remnants of rotten egg fumes which, from my experience, is pretty unpleasant.)
You can use your credit card for almost everything. Coming from New York City, I'm used to a lot of places not taking credit cards or having minimums. In Iceland, just about every place will take plastic with no minimums, including waffle trucks and hot dog stands. It's possible to never have to use an ATM or exchange money here (I asked the woman at the money exchange desk at the airport if I'd need cash and she said I probably wouldn't), but I'd recommend exchanging a bit of money, maybe $10 worth. Some non-credit card situations you may run into are for parking meters, if you want to leave a tip (although you don't need to because it's already included in food prices), and for certain vendors at Kolaportið, the flea market. Greg was the only one who used cash during our trip to buy some stuff from the flea market and from a vending machine.
If you rent a car, bring CDs with you. First off, you should rent a car if you like driving and want the freedom to do whatever you want. And you'll probably want this freedom because staying within the walkable limits of Reykjavik doesn't show you much of Iceland, and tour buses are limiting. Drive for hours and you'll reach waterfalls, glaciers, geysers, rocks, and lots of dirt; drive for minutes and you'll find Hagkaup (kind of like K-Mart, but a gazillion times nicer). But back to the CD thing: between the three of us we brought one CD—accidentally. I left Dan Deacon's Bromst in my laptop by mistake. And after about ten minutes Diana and Greg never wanted to hear the mellifluous/grating bleepybloop sounds of Dan Deacon again. We did turn to the radio during our 4+ hour (each way) trip to Jökulsárlón, but it would've been better if accompanied by Sigur Ros and not "Gives You Hell" by All-American Rejects, which we heard at least three times on the pop radio station.
And while I'm still on the topic of cars, renting a manual car is way cheaper than renting an automatic (and is probably more common). Only Greg knew how to drive manual though. On my own, I would've just been...screwed. So if you don't know how to drive manual, bring someone who does. Like Greg! On that note, many thanks to Greg for driving the whole time and enduring my intermittent snoring.
And..um, while I drag out the topic of cars, you might want to look over these Icelandic road signs before your trip. It took us a while to figure out what the No Parking sign was. And on a random note, the Apple Command symbol means you're coming to a touristy spot. (I guess there's another name for it, but that's what we call it!)
Most restaurants in Reykjavik seem to close at 9 p.m. It's disorienting when it's still light out at 9:30 and the places you want to eat at have already closed. Ooooops. On a similar note, most stores close at 6 p.m. on weekdays.
Do not buy alcohol at Vínbúðin (the government-owned liquor store) if it's stuff you're planning to bring back home. This might be an obvious tip, but I didn't know as I've probably bought alcohol less than five times in my life and never in a foreign country. We went to the store on our last day to get some stuff to bring home (I bought brennavin for a friend) and then found the same drinks at the Duty Free shop for almost a fourth of the price (in the case of my brennavin, at least). EPIC FAAAAIL.
If you spend 4,000+ ISK you can get the tax back. So if you think you're gonna buy a bunch of souvenirs or something, buy them all at once and save a few bucks. I made a few big purchases (pair of shoes, CDs, some goo from the Blue Lagoon where everything kind of costs a lot) and got $31 at the end of my trip.
Bring gloves. Greg and I forgot gloves. It was getting warm in NYC and even though we brought our heaviest coats, we kinda forgot that uncovered hands get cold. Yeaaahhhh.
If you stay in a hotel off Laugavegur, it's gonna be freakin' loud on the weekend. Or maybe beyond the main street, but basically if it's a Friday or Saturday night, or some other holiday night, revelry will go on until 4 a.m. or later. I recall hearing noises outside until at least 4 a.m. and the clinking of empty bottles being collected at 6 a.m. I'm not saying it's a problem as much as giving you a warning: if you don't drink into the wee hours of the morning you'll probably be so tired that you'll easily fall asleep, and if you stay up all night you'll be in good company.